The night before our Saturday-afternoon talk with the Kentucky HeadHunters, the boys played a gig in Baltimore, Maryland. It was the kind of show their growing cadre of fans has come to expect: energy to rival or best any hormone-driven thrash punktet; massive doses of homemade, hot-from-the-barbecue Southern rock; plus an eclectic mix of bored-out covers.
The crowd stayed on its feet for the duration. There were grizzled veterans of the Southern-rock Seventies, chaw-bearin' cowboys, kids with black tee shirts. All ears would ring for days after.
In the early morning hours following the raucous show, the old concert house the HeadHunters had just brought down burned down. Went up in flames. Are the Kentucky HeadHunters really that hot?
The answer, of course, is no. But the coincidence--a venerable entity's sudden inflammation--aptly reflects the effect that the Kentucky HeadHunters produced in 1990.
The five hillboys--brothers Ricky Lee and Doug Phelps, brothers Richard and Fred Young and their cousin Greg Martin--are relishing every moment of their sudden celebrity, to be sure. But Nashville's siren call won't be enough to pry them from their old Kentucky home. The title of that fire-breathing debut disc Pickin' on Nashville underscores their arm's-length approach to the town behind the Pine Curtain.
"Why move?" asks rhythm guitarist and unofficial spokeshead Richard Young. "A real interesting fact is that the farther we stay away from that town, the more they want us. But if you take us away from home, you take the music from us." Home for three fifths of the mountain tribe continues to be Metcalfe County, Kentucky.
The Young brothers, Richard and Fred (he's the flyweight drummer with the oversize muttonchops and coonskin hat) first met their cousin Greg Martin when all three were in junior high school.
"Here comes Greg walking over a hill, carrying a guitar case," Richard Young remembers. "Next thing you know, we were jamming in the school kitchen." The boys found heroes in the Beatles, Humble Pie, and Cream; then it was on to Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, and the Lovin' Spoonful. Old blues and the Motown sound were also an influence on the Kentuckians.
"Ain't many got the toe jam that Aretha Franklin did then," Richard observes.
Along with cousin Anthony Kenney, the teenagers formed Itchy Brother. It was 1968. All had played since they could hold a guitar or beat up a drum, and they particularly liked the songs of the South. The boys put a spit-shine on their fledgling style in an old two-story white-frame building given to them by their grandmother, Effie Young. The "practice house" remains their rehearsal venue and sanctuary.
Over its thirteen-year run, Itchy Brother came close to the big show several times, including a deal with Swan Song Records, then owned by Led Zeppelin. It didn't pan out.
"By the time we got to where we were good enough to think about a deal, the Southern rock thing was pretty much done," Young recalls. "We were just too young when it was happening. So all these labels were saying, `Son, you're just too country for rock and too rock for country.'" Through it all, Itchy Brother had garnered a rabid following in clubs like Mr. C's and Picasso's in Bowling Green, Kentucky. They melded white-trash rock classics with unlikely covers and some smoldering originals. They didn't go outside what sounded right in the practice house, either.
"We never did any top 40," Richard declares proudly.
But in 1981, Itchy Brother scratched its last B string. Richard commuted to dreaded Nashville where he had landed a staff job at the Acuff-Rose songwriting mill. Brother Fred played Patsy Cline's drummer in the movie Sweet Dreams, and in real life he played drums for country singer Sylvia. That fall, Greg Martin auditioned for the lead picker spot in Ronnie McDowell's band. Trying out for the bassist's position at the same time was Doug Phelps. Both got the jobs and soon became fast friends. Martin liked the way Phelps plucked his bass. It had a certain recklessness that reminded him of the old days with Itchy Brother. In fact, Martin occasionally found his way back to Metcalfe, where he would meet up with the Youngs and fill up the practice house with Southern-style rock 'n' roll and talk about reviving the old band. On one trip, Martin brought along his new buddy Doug Phelps.
"Our cousin, our bassist [Anthony Kenney] didn't want to come back," Richard says. "He'd just gotten married, and you know what that means. He was learnin' about it, findin' out he'd have to squeeze the toothpaste a certain way and such."
Doug filled in the bass spot fine, and a new band was in the oven. For their new effort, they wanted a bona fide lead singer. Audition after audition failed to yield such, and the group wasn't playing with the same chicken-fried panache as the old Itchy Brother days.
"We were missin' more than a singer, you know? Doug was sort of an outsider. I mean . . . " Richard Young's heavy accent thickens even more as his voice rises above the background chortling in the Chattanooga, Tennessee, motel room. "I mean, he could play that bass all right, you know, but it wasn't family no more." There was more laughter, and Richard announces that Greg Martin is taking over the conversation.
In his comparatively benign drawl, Martin picks up where cousin Richard has been hooked.
"All these singers came through," he says, "and Doug kept talking about his brother Ricky Lee. He'd been singing, but got tired of the business and was working at a museum. We finally got him up to the practice house. The first time he sang, boom--that was it. Instantaneous, man."
The Phelps brothers turned the group into a real family act--the missing spark. Preacher's sons from along the Arkansas-Missouri border, they also brought in a background of gospel and bluegrass. Ricky Lee's high, back-hills vocals covered the fresh, raw sounds of the newly named Kentucky HeadHunters like gravy on biscuits.
Locals welcomed the band as a reborn version of Itchy Brother. It didn't take long for them to find out they got much more. The clubs in the area were turning kids away by the hundreds. The boys began a radio show on a station in nearby Munfordville called The Chitlin' Show. For a couple of hours one or two times a month, the HeadHunters would let local bands showcase themselves, while they would try out their own new songs over the air. At least a hundred kids would hang around the tiny station during the show. "A lot of our songs came from the show," Martin says, listing three quarters of the tracks from their new release, Electric Barnyard. Like Pickin' on Nashville, this second album features bodacious originals and covers, including the first single "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" and Norman Greenbaum's feel-good Seventies gagger, "Spirit in the Sky." Believe it or not, both songs have become popular standards in their live shows.
"I'll tell you one thing," Martin says. "I'm having more fun. With Ronnie McDowell, I never sounded like myself. It wasn't a real great time. Doug and I became real good friends on the road, you know. He had a chance to go with Marie Osmond, but I felt if he left Ronnie McDowell, it would be disaster for him. The Kentucky HeadHunters was going to happen. It was meant to be."
The long-awaited break came when an East Coast benefactor, who'd heard the HeadHunters on The Chitlin' Show, lent the band $4,500 to cut a demo and send it to Nashville. They did that by asking pals in Nashville's back rooms to slip the tapes directly into the most appropriate pockets. Soon, one of these insiders called to tell the HeadHunters that their demo "was stirrin' up the dust" and it was time for a showcase.
Swallowing their fear of an Itchy Brother close-but-no-contract brush with major-label success, in May of 1989 the band invited the boys from the big houses along Music Row to come listen. Most did . . . and left, repeating the same refrain about "too country for rock," et cetera.
Yet, one man showed up without an invite: Mercury's Harold Shedd. He stuck around after the show, too. Not only did Shedd like the boys, but he said that the eight-song demo--christened Pickin' on Nashville by Fred Young--was good enough to release, with just a few additions. The HeadHunters finished up the project in Bowling Green and Glasgow, Kentucky, recording studios in just one week.
"We had no idea, man--no idea what was gonna happen," Martin admits.
What happened included platinum records in Canada and the U.S., in the quickest-elapsed time in country music history.
"Man, we went from little clubs in Kentucky to opening for Hank Williams Jr.," Martin says. "Hank's a great guy, too. He lent me his '58 Les Paul--just like John Sebastian's--a valuable piece of equipment. I won't take it on the road. I'm just too scared something will happen."
Martin's wide-eyed caution reflects the genuine concern of a group who worry about not screwing up (the boys reverently refer to the "thinkers" in the business) and remaining true to its school of music. Despite a growing array of top honors--Country Music Association's top band award and a Grammy for best country act, among others--they just want to be the good ol' boys that they are. That means no fancy duds at such star-spangled affairs and no apologies for it.
"I hate tuxedos," Martin growls, referring to the band's celebrated underdressing at the Grammy awards. "Besides, I bought a new pair of jeans for the occasion." Some more laughter and muffled motel talk ensue, and after Martin mentions something about taxes and audits, Richard Young returns to the horn. "When we were kids, being from a little place in Kentucky, we were more sheltered than city kids," Young says. "We just never broke the apron strings, cut loose from the family. I mean, hell, Fred still lives with Mom and Dad. Every song we write is true--you couldn't make it up if you wanted. Jakey, the black guy sittin' on the porch in the ["Dumas Walker"] video, is like an uncle to us. He's lived there for years, taught us a hell of a lot. He was always just sittin' on that porch, watchin' the cars go by on the highway." Richard Young pauses, chuckles. "Now he complains that he can't do that anymore. People always want autographs."
"Take old Dumas Walker. He lives thirty miles down the road, and everything on the song is true. He was marbles champion for 35 years. But there was a time when Dumas was gettin' senile, ornery. He wouldn't take a bath. After the song hit, I was out quail hunting with [country singer] John Anderson. We stopped at Dumas' and there he was--clean, happy, wearin' a button-down shirt." "Why would we leave?" he asks.
The task ahead, it seems, is to hold on to what they have and build on it carefully. The people they respect in their line of work--Hank Jr., ZZ Top--have reputations for having their heads in their jobs both musically and fiscally. It's an ethic the Kentucky HeadHunters dearly want to replicate.
"We're not gonna let anybody sink this for us. I'm glad we're old when this happened. I just don't know what the boys in Itchy Brother would have done. It's not ever'day somethin' like this happens. You have to guard it like a child."
Still, there are signs that the boys have begun shrugging off some of the fears. They love being on the road, playing their own brand of fiery, bluegrass-singed rock and blues and living their long-held dream. Greg Martin thinks that he might go ahead and bring that borrowed Les Paul along to Phoenix anyhow. Richard Young wants to know what the house they'll be playing in is like. When told about Celebrity Theatre's revolving stage, he guarantees a good time. And one other thing.
"Don't dress up special." Kentucky HeadHunters will perform at Celebrity Theatre on Thursday, April 18. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.
Nashville's siren call isn't enough to pry them from their old Kentucky home.
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"The farther we stay away from that town, the more they want us."
"Son, you're just too country for rock and too rock for country."
The band invited the boys from the big houses along Music Row to come listen. Most did . . . and left.